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GENERAL INTBODTTCTIOy.    TONS SYSTEM,                                          67
The literature of the Shans of Burma is considerable, but it is chiefly religious. Some
medical and historical works exist, All these are written in a rhythmical or poetical
style often of an intricate construction, familiarity with which can only be gained by
special study. Khamti and Ahom have also literatures. Little is yet known about their
contents, except that that of ^hom is rich in history, The remarkable series of historical
works which forms the glory of Assamese literature is no doubt due to the influence of the
Ihoms. The Assamese word for a * historyJ is bura»ji, which is an Ahom word, viz.t
burran-ji, literally,(ignorant-teach-store',c a store of instruction for the ignorant.'
Before treating of the Tai languages separately it will be convenient to deal here, once
for all, with some of their main typical characteristics. In giving examples, I shall,
unless otherwise stated, take them from Ahom, the oldest form of the speech to which I
have access.
The Tone SystBHa.—Every true Tai word consists of one syllable, A word may
consist of a vowel alone, e.g. d, wide; of a vowel preceded by one or more conso-
nants (an open syllable) e g. (Ahom) bd, say; trat a rupee; or of either of these followed
by a consonant (closed syllable) e.g. an, before; ban, village; Jchrdng, property. In the
Northern Tai language which has the most complete alphabet, Aliom, there are eighteen
Towels and twenty-three simple consonants, each of which may be combined with any
of the eighteen vowels. So far as the specimens show, the only consonants which can be
combined so as to form compounds with other consonants are I and r. The compounds
which occur in the specimens are seven in number, vis., Jchr, phr, mr9 tr, M, kl, pi.
There are thus 23 + 7 = 30 simple and compound consonants which, so far as we know,
can possibly precede each vowel, and (if we add the eighteen vowels which can stand by
themselves) there are, so far as we know, 18 + 30 X 18 = 558 possible open syllables ia
the Ahom language.
There are only seven consonants, Je, £, p, #gt n} n, and m, which can end a word. The
possible number of closed syllables is therefore 558 X 7 = 3,906. The total possible
number of words in Ahom is therefore 3S906 -f 558 — 4,464. In Khamti and Shan it is
far less, This figure is really too large even for Ahom; for though it is possible thatr and I
may combine with other consonants than those mentioned above, it is, on the other hand,
certain that a great many of the possible combinations, of which we do know, do not form
words. In order to check this statement, we may compare the Siamese languages the
phonetic system of which closely resembles that of Ahom. In it the number of element-
ary monosyllables is only 1,851, In Mandarin Chinese, with a less wide range of original
sounds, it is less than a third of this. As this number is not sufficient to furnish all
possible ideas, it follows that if all possible ideas have to be expressed in a Siamese-Chinese
language, one and the same word must have several distinct meanings. This is. actually
the case, lor instance, in Ihom, 'horse,5 *dog,' and { come * are all indicated by the
same word m&.
In order to indicate the difference in meaning in such cases a system grew up in the
Indo-Chinese languages of pronouncing the same word in different ways according to its
meaning. This system, is called that of tones. Owing to Ahom being a dead language,
and to its not having any graphic method of indicating the tone in which a word is to be
pronounced in order to indicate its meaning, we cannot, at the present day, say what
tones were in use for any particular word when it formed a member of the spoken